Review: UnderRail


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Dejan Radisic first began development of UnderRail, then known as Timelapse Vertigo, almost seven years ago. Originally a solo effort, and then later conducted by Radisic and his team at Stygian Software, the game proceeded apace, until December 18th, 2015 when UnderRail exited its Early Access period into a full release state.

I'm writing this dry history down because if I didn't mention that this game is technically a 2015 release, one could easily mistake UnderRail for a contemporary of the original Fallout, a title from 1997. That's how retro the game is in nearly every aspect of its being, including in ways that aren't necessarily flattering.

UnderRail (PC)
Developer: Stygian Software
Publisher: Stygian Software
Released: December 18, 2015
MSRP: $14.99

The good news is that most of UnderRail's potential flaws are largely dependent on how highly a given player regards the era of late-90s PC role-playing games. As an isometric-perspective, tile-based, post-apocalyptic RPG with turn-based combat, it's so much a student of the likes of Fallout and Arcanum that it's not surprising to see some of its fans call it "the game Fallout 3 should have been."

That debate aside, UnderRail certainly plays as enjoyably as those older games with regard to its systems. Everything from its perk-and-skill-based character creation scheme to its action-point-governed combat system works as well as one might have expected from such a game. That style didn't need much fixing 18-odd years ago, and UnderRail proves the fact.

This isn't to say that the game is devoid of new ideas. Nearly two decades of design hindsight do manifest in some ways, such as in a more intuitive approach to stealthy play, and an (optional) experience system that privileges exploration and thoroughness over combat prowess. Item crafting also makes an appearance in a more contemporary style, incorporating stat choices in ways that feel meaningful and rewarding for players who emphasize less combat-focused character builds. The addition of spell-like psionic abilities also gives the game a cyberpunk edge.

Unfortunately, the places where UnderRail feels like it falls short are the ones where the games of Fallout's era hold up best: in atmosphere, art, and writing. As a world and a narrative, UnderRail feels less like its own setting than a slightly genericized spin-off of Metro 2033 (though technically UnderRail's development predates the release of 4A's shooter series). Humanity can no longer live on the surface of the planet for reasons, and have reconstructed society in the titular UnderRail, a vast network of subway lines and stations. Players begin as a newly accepted resident of South Gate Station, a neutral settlement on the borders of larger, more politicized factions. Starting out doing errands for the stationmasters, players uncover a larger conspiracy, following it to its roots.

It works well enough, but the flat writing lacks the creative spark that made those older games stand out, igniting imaginations to fill the gaps where primitive graphical engines couldn't provide the details. As it stands, UnderRail's world to me is less an intriguing setting than a series of cave labyrinths filled with mannequins.

A few other curious omissions -- like an overly vague quest journal (good luck remembering what you needed to do in a quest without writing it down), and the complete absence of a world or local map -- feel like steps back from those very old titles. It's an area where being conspicuously retro doesn't help. 

Ultimately, UnderRail is a loving tribute act to the role-playing games of yesteryear, and in preserving those old forms and mechanics, also recaptures some of their soul and the unique sense of possibility afforded by those old, arcane systems. But it also falters when it comes to replicating the narrative and atmospheric qualities that cemented those old games as lasting classics in many players' minds. 

If what you miss most about games like Fallout is the act of rolling your character, exploring a space from that particular camera angle, allocating your AP in combat, or tweaking a build after several runs' worth of trial and error, you'll be in good hands with UnderRail. Otherwise, it may be more productive to simply play the older games again.

[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]

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Underrail reviewed by Josh Tolentino



Solid and definitely has an audience. There could be some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.
How we score:  The Destructoid reviews guide


Josh Tolentino
Josh TolentinoAnime Editor   gamer profile

When not posting about Japanese games or Star Trek, Josh serves as Managing Editor for Japanator, Dtoid's sister site for the best in anime, manga, and cool news from Glorious Nippon. Disclosure... more + disclosures



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